With baseball looking sillier by the moment (Sammy Sosa has been wearing elasticized sleeve cuffs, surely a more egregious sin than bat-corking), this is a good time to shift gears and focus on the Tour de France, the centennial edition of which is now under way. The sad truth, of course, is that cycling togs are pretty silly, too, but the Tour is of particular interest because it features one of the sports world’s oldest and most storied uniform traditions: the Yellow Jersey.
As even casual fans are generally aware, the Yellow Jersey is worn by the Tour’s overall time leader, but such was not always the case. Although the Tour itself debuted in 1903, it wasn’t until 16 years later that French journalists asked the race director, Henri Desgrange, to make it easier for them to pick out the leader amid the other cyclists. Since the Tour’s sponsoring newspaper was printed on yellow newsprint, the decision was made to have the leader wear a shirt of that same hue. And so on the morning of July 19, 1919, before the Grenoble-to-Geneva stage, Frenchman Eugene Christophe became the first to don the Yellow Jersey. Christophe also became the first to learn that wearing the Yellow Jersey in a given stage doesn’t necessarily mean you get to wear it for the rest of the race: He was eventually sidelined by mechanical problems, and it was Belgium’s Firmin Lambot who won the Tour that year.
The Yellow Jersey isn’t the Tour’s only color-specific garment. Since 1953, for example, the leader of the race’s Points Classification—a complex calculation that’s distinct from the overall time—has worn the Green Jersey (except in 1968, when it was switched to red in order to please a sponsor). And in 1968 the Tour introduced the White Jersey, worn by the even more bewilderingly determined Combination Classification leader. When that category was eliminated in 1975, the White Jersey became emblematic of the time leader among the young riders, currently defined as having been born no earlier than January 1, 1977.
Then there’s the King of the Mountains, the title bestowed upon the cyclist who excels during the Tour’s climbing phases. Although the designation was first conferred in 1934, it wasn’t until 1975 that the King began wearing the Polka Dot Jersey, also known as the Red-and-White Spotted Jersey. Frankly, Uni Watch finds both of these terms rather inelegant—what self-respecting athlete wants to wear something called the Polka Dot Jersey?—but perhaps something was lost in the French-to-English translation. Meanwhile, let’s give the Tour credit for avoiding those twin sartorial scourges of the American sporting scene: the black jersey and the purple jersey.